New iPhones generally come with a tinge of excitement, but the iPhone 13 didn’t come with all that much to get excited about. While it may be an upgrade over the iPhone 12, it’s certainly appearing to be more of a minor update than anything substantial. Short of a chipset update, a couple camera tweaks, and a marginally reduced Face ID notch, we’re looking at a largely unchanged device. One thing effectively driving up the value most is that Apple has upgraded base storage to 128GB – no more dealing with a new iPhone that only has 64GB of storage in 2021. So, let’s see what the phone has in store.
iPhone 13 Review
iPhone 13 – Design and Features
The iPhone 13 doesn’t get a radical redesign from the iPhone 12. Its size and shape are almost unchanged, though the iPhone 13 has gotten just a tad thicker and 10 grams heavier. It’s still easy to hold, but continues to be just wide enough that it can be hard to reach over to the opposite side for one-handed swipe navigation.
Though the design changes aren’t considerable, there’s enough difference that you won’t be able to use your older cases with the iPhone 13. Apple has shifted around the cameras, arranging them diagonally. Interestingly, while I expected the new camera bump to be the reason old cases might not fit, it’s actually that Apple has repositioned the power and volume buttons – so much for the waste reduction from leaving a charging brick out of the package.
There are a few new colors for the iPhone 13, with a Starlight, Midnight, Blue, Pink, and Product(RED) option. Practically, the Pink color just replaced the Purple option from the iPhone 12. Apple has tweaked the colors somewhat as well, so the Blue of the iPhone 13 isn’t the same as the Blue of the iPhone 12, nor is the Product(RED) the same between phones – curious for a signature color.
Apple continues to offer robust design with its tough Ceramic Shield on the front, aluminum frame, and considerable water resistance. While many phones are touting IP68 ratings, few are claiming resistance at a six-meter depth.
The iPhone 13 doesn’t revamp Apple’s MagSafe. It’s still on board and providing wireless charging. Apple happened to send the MagSafe Wallet accessory, but I found the magnetic attachment was weak enough that sliding the wallet off was simply too easy to depend on.
Apple made a couple minor changes to the display. There’s now just a little bit more viewable display as Apple has condensed the FaceID hardware and shrunk the notch at the top of the screen by 20%. It’s not the most noticeable difference though, and the extra screen real estate isn’t really put to much use, still just showing the time in the top left corner and three status icons in the top right. It’s also still a far greater interruption of the display than the small punchhole cameras Android phones have had for years. That said, Apple’s Face ID remains far more consistent and capable than facial recognition technologies I’ve used on Android phones.
Perhaps the bigger update to the display is that it can now reach a peak brightness of 800 nits in everyday use, whereas the iPhone 12 topped out at 625 nits. I’d already found the iPhone 12’s display more than bright enough for sunny days, so the extra boost for the iPhone 13 isn’t exactly a game-changer, especially since the phones share the same 1,200-nit peak brightness when viewing HDR content. The base iPhone 13 is all the more disappointing when considered next to the iPhone 13 Pro models, which got the long-awaited 120Hz ProMotion upgrade.
iPhone 13 – Software
The iPhone 13 comes running iOS 15, though it’s worth noting that won’t be a major point of differentiation from the iPhone 12 or even iPhone 11, since both of those phones can also update to the new OS.
The new operating system comes with a few quality-of-life and small feature updates for default apps from iMessage to Apple Maps. It’s no dramatic overhaul, and in use feels largely consistent with my experience on the iPhone 12. That means it’s been reliable and smooth, but it also comes with some of the same nag points, such as the rather basic keyboard and an inability to structure the home screen however one might want. The App Library also remains a bit clunky, sorting apps that don’t always make sense: Google Voice and Gmail in the Productivity & Finance folder, for instance.
iOS’s swipe navigation continues to be finicky, with apps like the Photo Gallery ignoring a side swipe to go backwards and overriding it by scrolling through photos instead. It’s an inconsistency that wouldn’t be surprising to see in third-party apps, but that Apple would continue to require two different methods to perform the same navigation continues to puzzle me.
iPhone 13 – Gaming and Performance
If you’ve kept up with the iPhone, you won’t be too surprised to hear that it continues to be an excellent all-around performer. From day-to-day use to gaming, it almost never shows a struggle. Just getting the phone going from a standstill is also conveniently quick. The phone is quick to turn its screen on and activate Face ID – sometimes so quick I accidentally hit the power button to wake it up just moments after it’s already woken. From the lock screen, the camera also launches in a snap, working a lot more quickly than I’ve experienced on any Android phone I can think of.
The iPhone 13 appears to handle some things a bit better than the iPhone 12. Last year, I ran Thatgamecompany’s Sky and then switched apps, and when I came back to Sky it had to be reloaded – a fairly slow process. On the iPhone 13, I was able to switch away from Sky, launch another app or two, and then switch back and resume from exactly where I was without needing to reload. The initial loading of the app also wasn’t very slow.
Unsurprisingly, the iPhone 13 continues to run that game incredibly well. The phone doesn’t struggle with the Quality or Performance settings of the game, offering smooth and beautiful visuals. Of course, the iPhone 12 performed similarly, so it’s not as though there’s a huge upgrade to be found here.
Aside from the cameras, the battery in the iPhone 13 may be the biggest upgrade on last year’s model. Apple suggests the iPhone 13 is capable of getting an additional 2.5 hours of battery life in general use compared to the iPhone 12. We don’t have such a specific test to compare in this way, but the iPhone 13 hasn’t shown any signs of being weak-willed in the battery department. Whether I’m messing around with the cameras, poking around in a game, or streaming a show, the battery doesn’t drain in a hurry, and I can reliably anticipate a whole day of life.
iPhone 13 – Camera
The cameras are generally the most exciting parts of a new iPhone, but the iPhone 13 hasn't earned much hype as it only slightly improves on what was already a solid camera system in the iPhone 12. Perhaps the biggest benefit for buyers will be the hand-me-down main sensor borrowed from last year’s iPhone 12 Pro. The sensor-shift stabilization technology makes for a steady shot on the main camera and helps in low-light.
The iPhone 13 continues to perform well in darker scenarios. The most noticeable benefit is in how it manages to negate hand movements that would have otherwise ruined an image. I’ve shifted my hands around on many an Android phone while taking a photo in night mode with a long exposure, causing it to come out a blurry mess. The iPhone 13 continues to avoid that, apparently with solid stabilization and an awareness of when I’ve moved the phone enough that the rest of what is getting captured can’t be used to finalize the image.
iPhone 13 Camera Samples
Of course, the reality is that the iPhone 13’s cameras shoot well across the board. The color is almost always on point, presenting a realistic image that matches what my eyes see – the only exception being when I pointed the camera at my computer screen outdoors and the cameras seemed to lock into a white balance that was inappropriate for everything else I pointed it at. The two rear cameras also match up quite well, making for a more consistent appearance when shooting with each. The front-facing camera is a bit of an exception, as it performs just great in daylight, but struggles more in darker settings and can get particularly soft.
For those that want a bit more control over the appearance of their photos while keeping them slightly within realistic bounds, Apple’s new Photographic Styles let you make a custom filter that dials in the tone and warmth and keeps them locked there. I personally find the natural color of the camera compelling without applying these, but they can add a bit of style or mood that some users might prefer.
Apple’s Cinematic Mode was the big hype centerpiece for the iPhone 13 series, providing an intelligent focusing system for video that can lock on and switch back and forth between subjects automatically. The feature also creates footage that can have its focal point adjusted after the fact. In other words, it’s creating an artificial depth of field, and that comes with some predictable drawbacks. Just as my colleague Kevin Lee noticed with the iPhone 13 Pro running Cinematic Mode, I caught it providing a rather poor blur effect around the subjects in my video.
The AI is fairly impressive at knowing when to switch subjects, but the edge detection can struggle with figuring out which parts to apply blur too. It may be a fun feature for home videos, but it doesn’t feel like the professional feature Apple makes it out to be, especially as it can’t record at 4K in this mode. As far as professional focus racking goes, I found the ability on Sony’s Xperia line to mark individual focal distances and switch between them more reliable, albeit a bit rigid and useless for on-the-fly shooting.
The iPhone 12 was a good phone, and the iPhone 13 hasn’t really done much to become any better. A fleet of minor improvements help it stand above its predecessor, and the extra storage is reason enough to pick it over a discounted iPhone 12, which will only come with 64GB. But, without major adjustments to the design or a more radical upgrade to the cameras, it’s just not quite a hit.